Goodwin Field, Fullerton, Calif. (Host: Cal State Fullerton)
No. 1 Cal State Fullerton (48-8, 23-4 in Big West)
35th appearance (22nd straight), automatic, Big West champion, No. 5 national seed
Top 500 Prospects: OF/RHP Michael Lorenzen (No. 52), C Chad Wallach (No. 347)
No. 2 Arizona State (35-20-1, 16-14 in Pac-12)
33rd appearance (last in 2011), at-large, tied for fourth place in Pacific-12 Conference
Top 500 Prospects: RHP Trevor Williams (No. 74), C Max Rossiter (No. 475)
No. 3 New Mexico (37-20, 25-5 in MWC)
Fifth appearance (fourth straight), at-large, Mountain West Conference regular-season champion
Top 500 Prospects: 1B D.J. Peterson (No. 12), C Mitchell Garver (No. 234), No. 273 Sam Wolff (No. 273)
No. 4 Columbia (27-19, 16-4 in Ivy League)
Third appearance (last in 2008), automatic, Ivy League regular-season and tournament champion
Cal State Fullerton posted one of the greatest regular seasons in the program’s storied history, posting its best 56-game record since it started Division I play in 1975 and winning more conference games than any Big West team since the 1999 Titans went 25-5. Fullerton did not lose a weekend series, thanks in large part to the rock-solid freshman pitching duo of Thomas Eshelman (11-2, 1.63) and Justin Garza (11-0, 2.08), the Big West freshman pitcher of the year and the Big West pitcher of the year, respectively. (As an aside, how’d the coaches settle on those distinctions?) With 71 strikeouts and two walks in 100 innings, Eshelman is the nation’s pre-eminent strike-thrower, with excellent command of four quality pitches in any count. The undersized Garza has more electric stuff, running his fastball into the mid-90s and mixing in an effective 79-82 changeup and an 81-83 cutter. The Titans will start funky sophomore righty Grahmm Wiest (8-3, 3.48) in the opener, and like the other two he excels at pumping strikes. The bullpen has good depth and a lights-out closer in two-way star Michael Lorenzen (2.14 ERA, 18 SV), who can run his fastball up to 98 and get swing-and-misses with a power breaking ball at 78-83. Lorenzen (.335/.419/.534, 7 HR, 50 RBI, 12 SB) is also the centerpiece of a dangerous lineup, and the nation’s best defensive center fielder. Fifth-year senior Carlos Lopez (.344/.413/.477, 4 HR, 34 RBI) managed to beat out Lorenzen for Big West co-player of the year honors (with UC Irvine’s Taylor Sparks), and his line-drive stroke and disciplined approach makes him a force in the middle of the lineup. Sophomores J.D. Davis (.325/.420/.455) and Matt Chapman (.284/.410/.456) have hit four homers apiece and have the bat speed to produce more power than their numbers suggest. The Titans are athletic, experienced and deep, and they have standout defenders all over the diamond but especially up the middle in catcher Chad Wallach, shortstop Richy Pedroza and Lorenzen.
Arizona State proved it can beat marquee opponents when it took back-to-back series against UCLA and Oregon in late March and early April, but the Sun Devils dropped three of their final four series (against Stanford, Arizona and Washington, none of which made the tournament field). ASU has a pair of front-line pitching talents in righty Trevor Williams (5-6, 4.17) and freshman lefty Ryan Kellogg (11-0, 3.26), but Williams has had an up-and-down junior season despite his premium fastball velocity and solid secondary stuff. Kellogg made headlines by throwing a no-hitter against Oregon State in March; a former star for the Canadian junior national team, he has outstanding feel for pitching with an 87-89 fastball and three quality secondary offerings. The No. 3 starter spot has been a black hole for ASU this season, but the bullpen has a pair of reliable workhorses in flame-throwing freshman righty Ryan Burr (4-2, 2.18, 11 SV) and senior lefty Matt Dunbar (2.01 ERA). Arizona State’s lineup lacks star power but makes up for it with a deep group of athletic grinders. Michael Benjamin (.349/.377/.569, 8 HR, 44 RBI) emerged as ASU’s best offensive player this year, and the Devils get more pop from the similarly versatile Kasey Coffman (.335/.431/.532, 7 HR, 43 RBI) and Trevor Allen (.304/.378/.525, 9 HR, 48 RBI). The Sun Devils excel at driving the gaps, ranking seventh nationally with 25 triples and 15th with a .450 slugging percentage. But they are a below-average defensive team, fielding just .964, and they can be run upon—opponents have succeeded on 79 percent of their stolen-base attempts this season.
New Mexico snapped a 38-year NCAA tournament drought in 2010 and has now been to regionals in four straight seasons under coach Ray Birmingham. The Lobos boast the nation’s most fearsome offense, leading Division I in batting (.336), scoring (8.4 runs per game), doubles (146) and on-base percentage (.424), ranking second in slugging (.510), third in triples (31) and 12th in home runs (52). The ball carries on warm days at Goodwin Field, and the forecast this weekend calls for warm, dry conditions, favoring the powerful Lobos. The centerpiece of the lineup is D.J. Peterson (.411/.525/.823, 18 HR, 24 2B, 70 RBI), the nation’s best pure hitter and an elite power threat. It isn’t easy to pitch around Peterson because he gets excellent protection from seniors Mitchell Garver (.387/.455/.580, 5 HR, 65 RBI), Josh Melendez (.335/.434/.491) and Luke Campbell (.382/.447/.602, 7 HR, 49 RBI), plus sophomore Alex Real (.320/.405/.524, 8 HR, 36 RBI). Speed merchant Chase Harris and patient Sam Haggerty excel at getting on base at the top of the lineup, which just never lets up. New Mexico’s pitching has solidified around junior righthander Josh Walker (11-0, 3.91) and senior righty Sam Wolff (7-3, 3.05). Walker, who will pitch Friday against ASU, generates excellent deception with a funky corkscrew delivery and a low three-quarters slot, making his 89-91 fastball play up. Wolff can run his heater into the high 90s but has improved his pitchability by working in the low to mid-90s with more movement, and commanding his tight breaking ball and excellent changeup better. The Lobos give hitters a different look with a pair of senior sidewinders in the bullpen: diminutive lefty Gabe Aguilar (5-2, 2.55) and righty Hobie McClain (3-1, 4.44). New Mexico’s defense was a liability in the first half of the season, but it has stabilized since Alex Allbritton moved from short to third, Peterson slid from third to first and Jared Holley took over the shortstop job.
Columbia posted the best record in the Ivy League during the regular season and avenged a 2010 Ivy championship series loss to Dartmouth by sweeping this year’s title series against the Big Green. The Lions are battle-tested, playing series in the first month at Lamar, Arizona and Central Florida plus two games at Miami, notching singles wins against the Wildcats and Knights. Columbia’s senior core is the backbone of the team. Its best overall player is senior two-way star Alex Black, who is hitting .320/.451/.510 with seven homers and 29 RBIs—leading the Lions in all five categories—and also has a 2.93 ERA and four saves as the bullpen anchor. A big, strong Texan, Black has a power fastball and good breaking ball in the late innings. DH Joey Falcone, the 27-year-old son of ex-big leaguer Pete Falcone, ranks second on the team with five home runs and first in tours of duty, having made three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine Corps medical corpsman. Columbia also has three seasoned, reliable upperclassmen in the weekend rotation in junior lefthander David Speer (6-2, 2.17), junior righty Joey Donino (6-0, 3.06) and senior righty Tim Giel (3-3, 73). Speer, who pounds the zone with a mid-80s fastball and three solid secondary pitches, struck out 12 in a no-decision in the first game against Dartmouth. Donino, who can reach 90 mph and has a swing-and-miss power breaking ball, threw five solid innings in the second game. And Giel, one of Columbia’s captains along with Black and outfielder Nick Ferraresi, is “built like a linebacker,” in Boretti’s words, and has a demeanor to match. The defense is anchored by three more upperclassmen up the middle: junior catcher Mike Fischer does a great job controlling the running game, while junior shortstop Aaron Silbar and senior second baseman Nick Crucet form a nice double-play tandem. Crucet, who had three hits and three RBIs in the clincher, also provides a spark with his speed, stealing 20 bases in 24 tries. Sophomore center fielder Jordan Serena has stolen 27 bases in 28 tries, and as a team Columbia has an 85 percent stolen base success rate (77-for-91). Coach Brett Boretti models his team after the small ball-oriented, West Coast style of play, but the Lions found themselves in a West Coast regional with three very offensive, powerful teams.